January Reading List
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard ( notes ) - I found this book tucked away on the back shelf of a bookstore. There were so many books scattered on the ground that I had to tip-toe around, but that's how I knew I'd find something good. Dillard's sporadic reflections on the life of a writer were refreshing. I enjoy reading fiction authors write about writing because of the animation and creativity they bring to the page. There's no better way to practice writing than to read someone who actually writes for a living (other than to actually write), for as Dillard writes in this book, "A writer is careful what he reads, because what he reads, he writes." One of my favorite quotesin this book is about how a series of good days makes a good life. Dillard writes, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."
Show Your Work and Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon ( notes ) - These were both books I read in 2020, but gleaned new insights from on a re-read (as so often happens). They're short, creative, and fun but hold a wealth of insight on what it means to be a creative, how to get inspired by others' work, and why its important to blog, tweet, or talk about what you're working on. Show Your Work was specially insightful because I was reminded, once again, of the myth that only "original" creations are worth making. As Kleon writes, "The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something 'original,' nine out of ten times they just don't know the references or the original sources involved." This happens a lot while listening to rappers. I'll hear a bass line or a drum beat I like, only to realize it was sampled from an earlier hip-hop artist. When that happens, I never look at the newer song in a negative light, so why do I think other people would look at mine that way? In fact, I'm often inspired by how the new artist put their own creative touch on it.
How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett ( notes ) - I've referred to this book as "one of the best self-help books ever written without all the BS." How to Live on 24 Hours a Day is the most timeless, practical guide to time management. It gives both philosophical ideas and practical steps to help you take control of the hours most people typically waste. This book, written in 1908, is the complete opposite of anything close to "self-help" books published today. You won't read anything in here about cold showers, waking up at 4:30 am, or going for a 5-mile run every morning. The advice is simple, the words are witty and refreshing, and I highly recommend it.
Devil in The White City by Erik Larson ( notes ) - This is an enthralling tale of "murder and mayhem" at the Chicago World's Fair. There are two storylines Larson tracks in this book: one is of the construction of the Chicago World's Fair and the other is of a murderous villain who got away with killing multiple people just down the street from the fair's center. Incredibly, everything that happened in this book is true, even though it reads like a masterful novel. I'm currently reading Larson's other narrative non-fiction books and I can confidently say he has mastered the craft.
Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday ( notes ) - In Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts, Ryan Holiday creates a playbook for writers, creators, and artists to make exceptional work and get noticed. And yes, those are two separate skills. Creating great work is hard and takes time, but so is getting that work in front of other people. But, don't think just because you've captured attention means your work will sell ( look at this example of someone who had 2 million followers and couldn't sell more than 50 items). Creating work that lasts and marketing that work is two sides of the same coin. To create a true perennial seller, both skills are needed. You'll learn the perfect formula for doing so in this book.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (fiction) - I bought this book from the same store I picked-up The Writing Life from. Vonnegut is mentioned so often, and I've read about him, but never read any of his work until now. I liked it. It was a strange mix between sci-fi and, believe it or not, memoir. I read another one of Vonnegut's books in early February, but you'll have to wait for that one!